The first “Encyclopaedia Britannica” was published in three volumes between 1768 and 1771. For the next two centuries, the company worked to build and retain its reputation as the publisher of the leading compilation of general knowledge in the world. The books were sold to schools, individuals and organizations through mail orders, printed advertisements and door-to-door salespeople, and the strategy worked well for more than 200 years.
It would be logical to assume that a company with such a long and illustrious history would be slow to adapt to technology, but that was not the case. The online version was launched in 1994 in an effort to compensate for lost revenue due to declining sales of the print version and compete with the numerous sites offering essentially the same information. In 2012, the company announced that it would no longer publish printed editions; the 2010 edition would be the last opportunity buyers would have to secure a traditional hard copy set, and once supplies are exhausted, there will be no more.
In other words, the company embraced current technology to provide customers with a product they wanted to replace a product that had become increasingly “unwanted.” It survived by adapting, but it offered little in the way of innovation.
Other companies have not been as successful as “Encyclopaedia Britannica” in their attempts to adapt. They have fallen to competitors who were truly innovative. Traditional video rental stores (such as Blockbuster) found themselves backed into a corner with the introduction of online streaming services (such as Netflix). Online music services contributed greatly to the demise of the corner record store. Smartphones have contributed to slumping sales of traditional cameras. The convenience of e-commerce sites has taken such a heavy toll on traditional retailers that analysts question whether some long-established names (including J. C. Penney and Sears) will be able to survive at all.
Although the Internet plays a major part in most of the disruptions, it is far from the only player. There have been many other digital innovations that have proven disruptive. For example, 20 years ago, how many people would have thought about using their mobile phones to take high-quality videos, complete with audio? How many moviegoers would have expected that they would someday be able to purchase tickets at a self-service kiosk and skip the long lines? How many marketers predicted the ability to use iBeacons to track customers’ movements throughout a store to improve the layout? How many CEOs could have predicted the ways that moving to the cloud would impact how they did business?
Thus, digital disruption is far more than embracing a single technology. It is all about integrating various technologies into an innovative package that benefits both customers and businesses.
Case Study: GE Digital Energy
General Electric has a long history of technical innovation, but even so, the company’s concept of bringing an engaging experience to buyers of heavy equipment raised a few eyebrows. The company felt that just because the customer might be looking for a transformer or a turbine did not mean that the experience could not be personalized and flexible while offering outstanding customer service on every step of the purchase journey.
Using a custom software, sales reps can pull out their iPads and show potential customers every item in every catalog. There are even 3D views of the various parts, allowing virtual “autopsies” of a product to see what is really inside. Should an off-the-shelf solution not meet the customer’s needs, the reps can create a custom configuration while still seated in the customer’s office and even without an Internet connection. The work order can be generated and entered into the GE system quickly. A process that once took several weeks can be accomplished in as little as 30 minutes.
The customer will be informed of his order status every step of the way. The first notification will be that the customer’s order has been placed. Once the product ships, the customer is notified and given an estimated delivery date. In between, customers can check the status of their orders at any time so that they always know the most current status.
GE’s strategy was to use all the tools available to create an outstanding experience for their customers. Some of these tools had been available for some time, but what was truly innovative was the way that the company combined them to provide a superior experience for customers in an industry in which sales reps were still using 20th century technology to sell 21st century products.
Every company must find ways to innovate their methods if they are to thrive. The technology is out there, and the most successful businesses will find ways to maximize opportunities to benefit from technology. They will be adaptable, flexible and forward-thinking. Those that are not risk being quickly outpaced by the competition.